An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)
What is one to say when the beloved dies? There is nothing to say. None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate. My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead. “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10). What else is there to say? There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.
A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne. It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated. After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.). The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).
Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).
Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference. Yet Didion is hardly apathetic. She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch. If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough. If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché. If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative. Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.
Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well. Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.” (I deliberately omitted the question mark.) The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life! Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”
Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”
In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement. What is it like to be bereaved? You will never know until it happens to you. Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death. A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him. Self-pity, of course, is inescapable. She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.” She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved. When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes. Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others. Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.
Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss. When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved. Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible. Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being. She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness. Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning. The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name in the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water (226).
This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.” They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything. They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page. Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech. She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable. What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said. She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points. There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death. Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.
CONTRACT, OATH, AND THE LETTER IN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
Was Shakespeare a hater of Jews?
It is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of dead author, as it is impossible to reconstruct our own thoughts. All we have are the plays. The question, then, ought to be revised:
Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play? There are certainly disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in the text. There are disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in other Shakespeare plays, as well. Confer Much Ado about Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance.
The frequent charges of Anti-Judaism that have been leveled against The Merchant of Venice perhaps derive from the play’s presentation of a relationship between Jewishness and the calculation of interest, or usury. But more specifically, the play stages a relationship between the making of an oath and the accrual of a debt.
The debt that is owed to Shylock–a “pound of flesh”–is guaranteed by an oath. The pound of flesh is not, according to The Merchant of Venice, a metaphor for money. It refers literally to the flesh “nearest the merchant’s heart”:
And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant’s heart [IV:i].
The oath prevents Shylock from translating the debt into figurative terms, despite Portia’s urgent offer to give him three times the sum (“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” [Ibid.]). The debt of the “pound of flesh” must remain literal, not figurative–the phrase must refer to the excised human flesh, not to money.
If Antonio is compelled to liquidate the sum of money owed to Shylock, “the Jew” is not similarly coerced. Portia’s injunction to forgiveness–“Then must the Jew be merciful” [Ibid.]–is groundless according to contract law. There is nothing, no contractual obligation, no force of law that compels Shylock to be merciful and to forgive the debt: “On what compulsion must I? tell me that” (Shylock) [Ibid.]. For the hateful Christian Anti-Judaist, “The Jew” is one who clings to the letter of the law and not the law of forgiveness. Justice and mercy may not coexist. To show mercy would be, according to Shylock, to disregard the letter of the contract. Nothing, according to Shylock, obligates him to forgive the debt or to be merciful. The contract, however, which Shylock follows to the letter, requires repayment of the debt within three months. Such is a way in which Christian Anti-Judaism is staged in The Merchant of Venice.
The law is transcendent and submission to it is mandatory, both for the Christian judge and the Jewish creditor:
It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a degree established:
’Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be [Ibid.].
If the oath is binding, it is because it is based upon a transcendent law. But what is the source of the transcendent law? What gives it its force? And what compels one to follow it? The law, according to Shylock, has a divine origin:
An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury on my soul?
No, not for Venice [Ibid.].
I charge you by the law,
Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
Proceed to judgment; by my soul I swear,
There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me. I stay here on my board [Ibid.].
The law is beyond all human power and representation and demands absolute submission from humanity; it must be followed. Human language, “the tongue of man,” is powerless against it, even though the word of the divine is written in the form of a contract, another instance of “the tongue of man.” Divine law demands absolute fidelity and inscribes itself in the contract which is written in the tongue of man. The contract–again, written in human language–is binding because of its divine provenance. Here we encounter a Shakespearean version of the natural-law argument. The naturalism of the moral law is evident in the contract itself, which “the Jew” knows inside and out, inwendig and auswendig. Both Christian AND Jew are obligated to follow the law of Venice, which is theological in origin.
Portia’s response to all of this theological nonsense is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Dressed in the garb of a man, Portia will take Shylock’s desire for a “pound of flesh” to the limit:
Tarry a little: there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood–
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”;
Take then thy bond, taken then thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice [Ibid.].
“The Jew,” according to the stupidity of conventional Anti-Judaism (and is there any Anti-Judaism other than the conventional version?), ignores the spirit of the law in favor of the letter. “The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’”: By literalizing his statement, Portia is able to undermine Shylock’s project to exact (and extract) from Antonio what these words denote. There is an absolutely unified relationship between words and what they mean. The codicil to the contract will state that “the Jew’s” property and land will be confiscated if the penalty is not carried out to the letter.
Shylock, of course, refuses to carry out the penalty; he refuses to punish the debtor, Antonio. Soon thereafter, the stage direction is given: “Exit Shylock.” Shylock disappears rather early in the play (Act Four: Scene One). The earliness of this disappearance is particularly strange for a Shakespeare play, given that the Shakespearean villain usually remains until the final act. Shylock’s fate will be a forcible conversion to Christianity, thus firming the play’s staging of a vehemently Anti-Judaic stance.
The question still remains unanswered: Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play? My impression is that it is. The Merchant of Venice shows a rabid hatred of Jews, as it stupidly identifies Judaism with literalism and the literalization of metaphors. The Merchant of Venice is about the literalization of the metaphor and the becoming-metaphor of the letter.
GIRL GONE ROGUE: A review of GOING ROGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Sarah Palin)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The title of Sarah Palin’s martyrology, Going Rogue (2009), is richly significant. “Rogue” can mean “renegade” and thus point to Palin’s illusory departure from the ever-redefinable “political” and “media elites,” as well as from the McCain camp. Reactionary politicians, these days, like to style themselves as “mavericks”–when, in fact, they represent this country’s most powerful insiders. They endorse tax cuts for the affluent; they serve the gluttonies of the wealthiest financiers, corporate executive officers, and industrialists in America.
A slight logogriphic substitution would transform “rogue” into “rouge.” The title, then, could be rendered: The Reddening of Sarah Palin. (“Rouge,” in particular, recalls a shade of lipstick. Would “rouge” refer to the pig’s lipstick-smeared mouth?). Red, obviously, is the color of the Republican Party, but it is also the color of passion and evokes rage and lust. It is, as well, the color of fury, of blood, of rapine and viciousness. It is the color of ecclesiastics, of cardinals. In the iconography of National Socialism, black swastikas were emblazoned on red backgrounds.
This is a book that is drenched in red.
There is discussion of the animals Sarah Palin enjoys slaughtering, the caribou and moose she takes pleasure in shooting, the salmon she skins. A photograph of the Arctic Huntress beaming with the psychosexual thrill that comes from killing game, the bloodied corpse of a caribou under her heel. “I love meat… [I] especially love moose and caribou. I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals–right next to the mashed potatoes” [18-19]. Little commentary is required; what is said is clear. The only room for animals, even endangered animals, is inside of us. Kill animals and then interiorize them, kill animals that prey upon those other animals we want to interiorize: “[W]e had to control predators, such as wolves, that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities” .
I wish someone would tell Sarah Palin that to decimate means “to kill every tenth being.”
Sarah Palin thinks that animals exist only in order to be devoured by human beings. That is their purpose, their end, their divinely ordained telos. As if it were a “red kite” , she tells us, her mind is connected by an invisible string to the mind of God. She has immediate access to the divine understanding: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”
In other words,
1.) Animals can be meat–meat that is devoured by human beings.
2.) Therefore, animals exist only to be devoured by human beings.
We have here both a non sequitur and a teleological argument. It is equivalent to saying:
1.) The human hands may be used for strangulation.
2.) Therefore, the human hands exist only for the purpose of strangulation.
The color red may connote the blood of animals. It may also connote shame. One is reminded of the red face of the unnamed Alaskan politician who observes Sarah Palin with horror as she gleefully breastfeeds her daughter on a radio program: “I acted like I didn’t see the shocked look on the politician’s face as he turned red and pretended it didn’t bother him at all” . In a single image, the flocculent creaminess of lactate mingles with the blood that rises to the politician’s cheeks.
Red reappears when Sarah Palin douses herself, Countess Bathory style, in the blood of political martyrdom or of “the popular political blood sport called ‘the politics of personal destruction'” . Seldom has self-imposed victimhood been exploited so meretriciously as it is here. Sarah Palin bemoans the fact that she was “slapped with an ethics accusation” . And yet which “ethics accusation,” precisely? There are many. That she misappropriated her governorship for personal and political gain? That she used the Alaska Fund Trust to cadge gifts and benefits? She never tells us. She merely dismisses all ethical grievances as personal attacks issued by the monolithic Left: “One of the left’s favorite weapons is frivolous ethics complaints” .
Sarah Palin’s silence over her ethical misconduct is only one of the many silences that perforate Going Rogue. She never attempts to wash away the record of her ignorance of Africa, the Bush doctrine, or NAFTA. Certain things are so shameful that they cannot be erased with lies. Let me cite one more instance of this studied silence: As Mayor, our gentle authoress called for the banning of “objectionable” books from the Wasilla Public Library. She claims to have merely asked librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, “What’s the common policy on selecting new titles?” . And yet nowhere does Sarah Palin, meek and mild, mention that she fired Mary Ellen Emmons two days after this conversation took place. So many of this book’s pages are devoted to assaulting her critics (169 out of 234, by my count), but those criticisms for which she has no rejoinder, those words and actions that are truly indefensible and cannot be mangled, are consigned to a willful silence.
The name of whoever wrote this book is unknown, but it is attributed to a ventriloquist’s doll, a cue-card reader, a red harpy, a Venus in Carmine.
Dr. Joseph Suglia